Confidence, optimism grow in pockets of U.S. as firms rehire

Inside the Simonton Windows factory here, some workers who are back on the job after being laid off for months believe they are proof that the darkest days of the recession are over.

"They're saying things are getting better, and people don't seem as worried," says Cammie Hixson, 49, who was laid off for almost four months. "I think the economy has turned around."

Elaine Armstrong, 65, was laid off by Simonton for four months. Now that she's back at work, she says, "I'm very hopeful. I think we're all going to be OK now."

The nation's unemployment rate is 9.7% and it's even higher — 10% — in Edgar County, where Paris is the county seat. Even so, signs of recovery are beginning to emerge. Although 84% of Americans said in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll this month that they believe the nation is in a recession, 52% said things are getting better. Almost two-thirds expect the economy to be better but not fully recovered a year from now.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Sept. 15 that the recession is "very likely over," but he warned that the recovery isn't likely to create many jobs.

"It is still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time as many people still find their job security and their employment status is not what they wish it was," he said.

Here and in other communities where people are heading back to work, though, there is growing confidence as workers who are getting paychecks spend money, spreading optimism to small-business owners and city leaders.

General Motors and U.S. Steel are calling thousands of laid-off workers back. Companies also are recalling employees in:

• Waycross, Ga., where a FEMA contract for mobile homes means ScotBilt Homes can recall 110 workers laid off last October. "It's a big shot in the arm for southeast Georgia," says ScotBilt Vice President Tom Holland. He expects new hires to bring the workforce up to as many as 300.

• Shenandoah, Iowa, where nine full-time employees were called back to work at the Eaton plant three weeks ago, 40 will return today and five more next week. Eaton makes truck transmissions.

• Beatrice, Neb., where Exmark Manufacturing this month recalled about 200 workers after a seasonal plant shutdown was extended from two weeks to five. The plant makes lawn mowers and mower parts.

In Paris, 139 Simonton workers who were laid off in late 2008 and early this year were offered their jobs back. The factory, which makes custom windows, also hired 79 seasonal, temporary employees. Simonton also recalled workers at its West Virginia plant. Other manufacturers here also are rehiring employees.

"I think the worst is over, I really do," Paris Mayor Craig Smith says. "I can see it in this little town" of 9,100, he says, "and if it's happening in Paris, it's got to be going on in other places."

It's happening in Wooster, Ohio, where Tekfor, which makes gears, shafts and other auto parts, called back all 40 workers who had been laid off and hired more, President David Griffin says. His workforce is up to 180, and business is better than it has been in more than a year.

The federal cash-for-clunkers program helped invigorate the industry, Griffin says. "All the indicators are that things are turning around and we've bottomed out," he says. "It can only get better from here."

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